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Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Program Targets Early Detection, Better Outcomes

Anne-Marie Wagner has always been careful about her health and kept up with her screenings, especially her annual mammograms.

Based on her family history and personal risk factors, Wagner’s primary care physician referred her to a program at Lowell General Hospital that specializes in helping these women prevent cancer or catch it early. She was eager to take advantage.

Anne-Marie Wagner
Anne-Marie Wagner discusses her treatment plan with Dr. Anasuya Gunturi at the Women’s Wellness Center.

As part of an accelerated screening program, a breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging test) revealed breast cancer at a very early and curable stage.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Wagner. “I’m just feeling so incredibly lucky and grateful right now.”

The Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Program at Lowell General’s new Women’s Wellness Center is designed to provide local access to this advanced level of care that previously required trips into Boston.

The clinic’s team includes breast surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists and nurse practitioners who walk patients through every step of their care.

When Wagner went for her first appointment in September 2018, she met with Susan Cross-Skinner, RN, MSN, ANP-BC, CN-BP, a seasoned clinician with over 25 years of experience working with high risk women and breast cancer patients. Cross-Skinner took a thorough family history, discussed lifestyle changes to help reduce her risk, and covered recommended screenings.

She also recommended genetic testing to see if Wagner had a genetic mutation, such as the BRCA gene mutation, which could put her at a higher lifetime risk of breast and other cancers. Wagner met the criteria for genetic testing and additional screening with a breast MRI.

“MRI screening, when used in conjunction with regular screening mammograms, can be very helpful in early detection in women that are at high risk or have very dense breasts. Mammograms can sometimes detect things an MRI cannot, and vice versa,” said Skinner.

Wagner’s genetic testing was negative, but the MRI revealed an abnormality in her right breast. A biopsy revealed abnormal cells called severe atypical ductal hyperplasia. The recommended course of treatment was surgery to remove the area of cells to rule out cancer.

It was this stage of her diagnosis that Wagner came to appreciate Lowell General’s collaborative approach.

Wagner met with Dr. Lerna Ozcan, a fellowship trained breast surgeon at Lowell General, who performed a lumpectomy. Additional workup and treatment showed that she had a type of breast cancer called invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Fortunately, the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, and Wagner was diagnosed with a highly curable breast cancer.

After recovering from surgery, Wagner completed 20 days of radiation therapy with Dr. Vivek Patel, and now sees Dr. Anasuya Gunturi, a medical oncologist, for follow-up appointments and hormone therapy, as well as Dr. Ozcan and other members of the care team. She also takes part in physical therapy at the Women’s Wellness Center weekly to help her get all her strength and stability back.

“Six months of diagnosis and treatment doesn’t seem so long, but it wasn’t an easy time because I’m a worrier by nature,” said Wagner. “But what made a real difference to my wellbeing was the whole team was involved in different parts of my care.”

A longtime resident of Lowell, she said having this incredible team of experts right around the corner was literally a life-saver. And having easy access to appointments on the way home from work, or on the way in, made all the difference.

“You really get wiped out and have a lot of fatigue – especially during radiation,” said Wagner. “I couldn’t imagine having to travel long distances while you are trying to take care of yourself. You don’t need to go anywhere else for great care – we have it all right here.”

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